Preview: San Jose State has its hands full with Navy on Friday

san_jose_stateSan Jose State faces its last good chance to get into a bowl against a team they have a winning history against: Navy.

But the only team to hold Navy to less than 100 yards rushing in the Ken Niumatulolo era (70, 2012 against the Spartans) is not here, as Jimmy Durkin of the Mercury News points out. Many of the players who had big games last year have moved on or are injured for this game. Keith Smith, who leads the nation in tackle, missed that game with an injury.

That defense has been replaced by one that is among the nation’s worst run defenses, and was humiliated by a Nevada team that had nothing to play for last Saturday. The Midshipmen represent the Spartans last good chance to earn a bowl berth (Fresno State may not be unbeatable, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s best to avoid having that game mean anything.)

One thing is certain, the game plan the Spartans have carried the last two weeks will need to change. They need to slow Navy’s defense and have success on offense running the ball and really doing something other than lobbing long passes.

Here’s some key things to follow for Friday’s game:

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Saturday Preview: Spartans look to earn bowl eligibility against lowly Nevada

san_jose_stateNevada dominated its series with San Jose State for years, winning nine of the last 10 meetings. The Spartans only win was at home in 2007, and didn’t hurt the Wolf Pack’s bowl chances.

How the tables have been turned. This year, it’s the Spartans with something to lose against a struggling Nevada team. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Nevada has lost five straight and has just three wins in Brian Polian’s first year as coach of the Wolf Pack, and those wins against a mediocre FCS UC Davis team and two teams in the doldrums of the Mountain West (over winless Hawaii and a close call with two-win Air Force.)

This year’s struggles prove that no one other than Chris Ault can lead them to a bowl game. Only once in the last 23 years has anyone other than the legend Ault led the Wolf Pack to a bowl game, and that was Jeff Tisdel in 1996 with a team Ault assembled.

San Jose State is seeking to make a second straight bowl game for the first time since Claude Gilbert led the Spartans to back-to-back California Bowls in 1986 and 1987.

Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s game at Mackay Stadium in Reno at 7:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

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Saturday preview: San Jose State goes for bowl eligibility against Aztecs

As far as rivalries are concerned, San Diego State is probably the closest San Jose State has to a fair fight annually now.san_jose_state

For years, it was Fresno State. They are the closest school to San Jose on the same level that doesn’t see the Spartans as a purchased win. The problem is that the Bulldogs have dominated the series since 1988, with the beatings getting worse once the Carr family got involved. And, given other criteria like fan support, digs, funds, and annual expectations, the gulf is even wider.

San Diego State makes for a much more even matchup. Both San Jose and San Diego are large urban schools that are key destination universities in the Cal State system and play third or fourth banana in their own primary recruiting grounds (San Jose to Stanford and Cal, San Diego to UCLA and USC.)

One is crap with its finances, the other has a drug problem. They really are perfect for one another.

But recent performance is where this has the potential to become a rivalry, especially with this game meaning so much to both teams.

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Saturday preview: Spartans try to spoil UNLV’s homecoming

The stakes are unusually high for a mid-season conference game. And not necessarily because UNLV and San Jose State are both in the Mountain West Conference’s western division crown race.

This means much more to each team’s bowl hopes, with the road becoming significantly harder for the loser and much more comfortable for the winner. UNLV is riding high after a week after ripping the Fremont Cannon from archrival Nevada for the first time in almost a decade, while San Jose State is peaking at just the right time, having won three straight and found their stride on offense.

Both teams are capable of putting up a lot of points, which is likely considering that neither defense has shown much fight this season.

UNLV has yet to have a game where they have rushed as a team for less than 100 yards this season. While the Rebels passing game has been above average this year, with quarterback Caleb Herring throwing only one interception to 13 touchdowns, the big gun of the offense is running back Tim Cornett, who really has been the backbone of the offense to this point.

Look at the numbers he has put up so far.

Rushing
Rk Player Att Yds Avg TD
1 Tim Cornett 159 831 5.2 10
2 Caleb Herring 68 115 1.7 1
3 Shaquille Murray-Lawrence 38 357 9.4 2

Important to note that Herring can’t be slept on either considering the Rebels throw the ball a little over half the time. But this team is pretty much going where Cornett carries them, and Herring or his backup, Nick Sherry, have yet to have a ton of success throwing the ball when the running game hasn’t been able to move it.

Does this mean the Spartans will be able to stop them? Probably not.

San Jose State have been sucking wind against the run all season long. Only two teams have failed to get to  a 100 yards this year: FCS Sacramento State and winless Hawaii. San Jose State is among the worst in the in the nation, allowing an average of 449.3 yards per game in total offense to opponents, 96th out of 125 FBS teams; and 101st in rushing yards allowed at about 206 on average per game.)

UNLV is nothing to note on defense either. They are 73rd against the pass, allowing about 223 yards per game through the air, and the reason that number is so low is because of the poor competition the Rebels have beaten so far. Derek Carr abused them in Fresno in mid-October, throwing for 412 yards in a 38-14 rout.

San Jose State’s passing game is riding a big wave through conference play. David Fales has been brilliant in his last two games, and has been rewarded for it, and the offense has come up big in the middle of both games to erase deficits to Colorado State and Wyoming.

But most important for this matchup is the recent development of a running game for the Spartans. Since freshmen Jarred Lawson and Tim Crawley started getting regular carries, San Jose State has yet to rush for less than 160 yards in a game. This has been important to the passing explosion over that same time, with Fales throwing for 318, 431 and 482 yards in each of those games with 11 TDs against just three interceptions. Fales had six TDs against six interceptions in the previous four games combined, and the Spartans were 1-3 in that time frame.

Along with the emergence of two talented young backs, it’s also worth noting that UNLV’s front seven on defense have been awful against the run. They rank 117th out of 125 teams in the FBS against the run, allowing an average of 236.3 yards per game on the ground and a little over two TDs.

With Crawley and Lawson finding their stride in the ground game, Fales hitting his stride and weapons all over the place, UNLV’s defense could be in for a long game. On the flip side, San Jose State fans could be sick of hearing about Tim Cornett when this is done.

UNLV has also wilted when the teams got tough.

The five teams the Rebels have beaten are not looking at the postseason this year, with Hawaii and New Mexico each giving UNLV something to think about this season (they beat the Rainbow Warriors just 39-37, and the Lobos dropped 42 on them.) A Nevada program that has seen better days gave them a run for their money last week at home. The Rebels have won the games they needed to win despite being pushed in some of them, and been blown away by the others.

Their schedule to this point has also been devoid of “pretty good” teams, like the Wyomings and Colorado States of the world. Everyone has either been down on their luck this year (Hawaii, Central Michigan) or going full steam ahead toward a bowl game (Minnesota, Fresno State.)

This season’s success was important to Rebels’ coach Bobby Hauck, who probably doesn’t survive the offseason without a bowl game after three seasons with a total of six wins, and 10 losses in each. More than anything, writes Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Ed Graney, it shows that Hauck’s vision for the future is starting to come to fruition.

It means a lot to UNLV to be bowl eligible, and being just one win away will give them incentive to go all out.

With Utah State next week and San Diego State looming, there likely aren’t many more wins left for the Rebels. Getting to six wins is good, but seven wins would likely assure them of a bowl berth, especially given the conference standings right now, with the possibility of as many as nine teams getting to bowl eligibility when this is all said and done for just six bowl tie-ins.

San Jose State, though, needs this one too. The Spartans need to get as far away from 6-6 as they can. Let’s face facts: San Jose State fans are not known to travel and are not often an attractive bowl pick. Many will remember 2008, when a 6-6 Spartans team got jobbed in the final hour by the Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl for Florida Atlantic.

The farther either of these teams can get from a .500 record, the better it is for their bowl hopes. Forget a Western division title, this one is important for a whole mess of other reasons.

A Spartans loss means they have to win to beat San Diego State the following week or Navy along with beating Nevada to get to bowl eligibility, and would be better served to beat all three. UNLV, with a loss, likely needs a win over Utah State or San Diego State down the stretch to secure a berth, all the while not overlooking Air Force.

This is going to be a shootout and the winner is one step closer to a bowl game. The other is in a tough spot with not many games left to get there. Both teams have a little leeway, and a loss here is far from the death knell for either one’s bowl hopes, but it makes the road a lot harder.

Game notes

San Jose State (4-3, 3-1 MWC) at UNLV (5-3, 3-1)

Line: San Jose State by 3.5. O/U: 66.5, as of Tuesday

Last matchup: Nov. 22, 1997, San Jose State beat UNLV, 55-48 in OT

Broadcasts: Online through Mountain West website (Ray Crawford, Doug Chapman, Pete Fiutak & Shae Peppler); Radio, San Jose State on KLIV 1590 AM (kliv.com; Justin Allegre and Kevin Richardson); UNLV broadcast on 1100 AM (Russ Langer and Mike Pritchard.)